Buddhist-Christian Studies 21.1 (2001) 103-106
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The 2000 Meeting of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies
Edward L. Shirley
St. Edward's University
The annual meeting of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies met in Nashville on Friday and Saturday, November 17 and 18, 2000. This year's papers addressed the theme "Beyond the Usual Alternatives in Buddhist-Christian Dialogue," with usual alternatives being the categories of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism.
The first session was held Friday afternoon. The first presenter, Terry Muck, spoke from a Christian perspective. He first addressed the adequacies of these three categories.Were these legitimate categories?Were they the only categories? Were there better ways to categorize theoretical positions involving the truth claims of the other? Terry suggested first that it seemed unnecessary to expand these three categories to include a fourth or fifth. Nor did he feel that it was necessary to do away with said categories altogether. He proposed, rather, that we make use of these three categories as helpful but that we be careful not to use them to label people. Indeed, he suggested, the same person might be inclusivist at one point in the dialogue but pluralist at another. It was especially important not to use these categories to dismiss another's position: "Oh, she's just an inclusivist." Terry pointed out that much of the discussion concerning the truth claims of the other were ultimately grounded in questions of soteriology: who will be saved (from a Christian perspective), or who can be liberated (from a Buddhist perspective)?
The second presenter was Miriam Levering, speaking from a Buddhist perspective. In her paper, she used three medieval Chinese Buddhist teachers who seemed to represent these three categories: Kuei-feng Tsung-mi, Ch'eng-kuan, and Ta-hui Tsung-kao (with whom she also associated contemporary Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh). The three teachers were facing questions about the relationship of Buddhism to Confucianism and Taoism. Kuei-feng Tsung-mi taught that there were three types of teachings: those that were nonliberative, those that were partially liberative, and those that were fully liberative. Lao-Tzu and Confucius, he maintained, were liberated beings, but were not fully liberated. Their liberation was partial or shallow. Ta-hui Tsung-kao, on the other hand, taught that words and concepts were not as important as the experience of emptiness and non-self, which could take place outside a Buddhist context. This seems to be the position, Miriam suggested, ofThich [End Page 103] Nhat Hanh. Finally, Ch'eng-kuan taught that only Buddhism contained the truth and that the teachings of Taoism and Confucianism were poison and led one to hell.
Virginia Straus responded from a Buddhist perspective. She appreciated Terry's suggestion that we shift from seeing the three categories as labeling and use them as instrumental categories: people tend to function in this way. She felt that Miriam's paper resonated with Terry's as she presented three types of teaching from within the Buddhist tradition.Virginia felt, however, that perhaps Terry had too quickly written off attempts to expand the number of categories to a set of four or five. Indeed, she pointed out, both presenters either ignored or dismissed this important work. Virginia also questioned why Terry seemed to let the positive and negative aspects of dialogue rise and fall on the question of salvation. What of David Chappell's suggestion that dialogue be based on responses to cultural and economic oppression rather than the search for truth? Global ethics, she suggested, would give a larger framework within which to dialogue.
Afterwards, there was general group discussion. A question was raised as to whether there was a parallel between this discussion of dialogical positions and the debate in studies of mysticism between the perennialists and pluralists. Others questioned Thich Nhat Hanh's position that dialogue could only take place from the position of nonduality. Were these categories merely ways religious liberals had to label others? Can there be a Christian or Buddhist ethics without the experience of grace or non...